THE PAWNS OF TERROR
“It’s up to the Americans. If they ask Israel to release those innocent Shi’ites, this will end in 24 hours.”
—Amal leader Nabih Berri
“No nation has been more generous. But we also have our limits— and our limits have been reached.”
—President Ronald Reagan
The chaos in the upstairs transit lounge of Beirut’s International Airport was a stark reflection of the unfolding terror outside. Having set the tables with white linen and plates of neatly sliced cake, heavily armed Moslems muscled aside jostling photographers and led five weary Americans to the waiting microphones. Addressing the packed press conference, their spokesman, Allyn Conwell, vividly described his plight and that of his fellow hostages—36 American passengers and three crew members of hijacked TWA Flight 847 still held captive by Shi’ite terrorists in Lebanon. Said the 39-yearold Texas oilman: “We are pawns in this tense game of nerves.”
And as nerves were stretched to the snapping point, the hostage crisis stretched into its second week, with no end to the deadly game in sight. On the weekend the hijackers, members of a militant sect of pro-Iranian Shi’ites, continued to refuse to release the Americans until Israel freed 766 detainees, most of them Shi’ites, being held at a prison camp near Haifa. But in Geneva, a government official said that Switz-
erland had briefed the United States and Israel about conditions set by Shi’te leader Nabhi Berri for the release of 40 hostages—the first and only acknowledged use of the “Swiss connection” in the crisis.
Through Conwell, the hostages appealed to President Ronald Reagan to “refrain from any form of military or violent means, no matter how noble or heroic, to secure our freedom.” For his part, a frustrated Reagan pledged to do nothing that would jeopardize the lives of the hostages—just as his White House predecessor, Jimmy Carter, had tried for months to negotiate the freedom of 52 U.S. Embassy employees taken captive during the 1979 Iranian Revolution and held for 444 days. But denouncing terrorism, Reagan issued a blunt warning to the hijackers—and the world: “The war which terrorists are waging is not only a war against the United States. It is a war against all civilized society. And our limits have been reached.”
Wounded: Indeed, while the hijackers were parading their hostages for the world’s press, terrorists on three continents confirmed the President’s point. In San Salvador left-wing guerrillas sprayed an outdoor café with machine-
gun fire and killed 13 people, including six Americans. In Frankfurt a new terrorist cell calling itself the “Arab Revolutionary Organization” claimed responsibility for a huge airport explosion that killed three people and wounded 42. In Nepal the death toll reached eight from a series of terrorist bombings in Katmandu and three other towns.
Disasters: Terror also struck on two other fronts during the weekend. In Tokyo, 358 passengers and 16 crew members escaped injury, but two baggage handlers died when a luggage container exploded after a Canadian Pacific Boeing 747 landed at Narita airport from Vancouver. And off the Irish coast, a grim search began for 325 passengers and crew members aboard Air India’s Bombay-bound flight 182 from Toronto and Montreal (p.43). Those disasters ended a week of mayhem that prompted Regan to declare war on terrorism: “This is a war in which innocent civilians are intentional victims. This cannot continue.”
Still, it was the escalating battle of wills between Shi’ite militants and the United States that riveted the world’s attention. Envoys from half a dozen neutral countries, as well as Muhammad Ali, the retired Moslem-American boxer, and Rev. Jesse Jackson, met with state department officials. Sweden, Austria and Switzerland volunteered to mediate, and indirect negotiations for the release of the hostages intensified, but no visible progress was made. Officials in Washington maintained terrorist demands would not be met, arguing that any surrender would only encourage other terrorists. But Nabih Berri, the Lebanese justice minister who claimed custody of the hostages, was equally adamant (page 24). Warned the leader of Amal, the mainstream Shi’ite political movement: “If the Lebanese are not released, then I, as a mediator, will wash my hands of the case.”
The Israeli connection complicated the crisis. In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Shimon Peres said initially that Israel was willing to return the Shi’ites being held at its Atlit prison camp south of Haifa—if there was a formal request from Washington. The Reagan administration flatly refused to make that request. But as the week wore on, Israeli government sources said that U.S. officials, in response to domestic pressure, were exerting subtle pressure to capitulate.“Let’s not play games,” said an angry Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s minister of defence. “If there is a request from the United States that this [prisoner release] has to be done as part of a deal for the release of the hostages, please come out and say it.” Gideon Samet, a commentator with the influential daily Ha’aretz, added, “Washington would be prepared to give in to the hijackers but
it would prefer that this particular humiliation be borne by Israel.”
The Shi’ite detainees, captured during clashes with the Israeli army as it withdrew from Lebanon, were originally held in a prison camp at Ansar in southern Lebanon, then moved to Atlit in April. That transfer across an international border may have contravened the Fourth Geneva Convention, which deals with the treatment of civilians in war-
“Let’s do the right thing as people.
Let’s stop the fighting.
Let’s go home.”
—Hostage Allyn Conwell
“I’ve never shrugged off the need to make a decision while facing terror. I expect the United States to do the same.”
—Israeli Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin
time. Israel, whose action drew protests from U.S. and Red Cross officials, said it always intended to release the captives. In fact, 249 were freed at the end of May. But the Israeli government is still subject to harsh domestic criticism for freeing 1,150 Palestinian prisoners, some serving life sentences for multiple murders, in exchange for three Israeli soldiers six weeks ago. That trade, deputy premier Yitzhak Navon said last week, may have “encouraged other terrorists to try their luck.” On Friday, Peres himself called U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz to voice support for the unyielding American stance.
Ribbons: But at the airport press conference, spokesman Conwell asked Israel to release the Shi’ite prisoners. “I feel that most people in America would like to see anyone in the world unjustly held return to their homeland,” he said in a statement that U.S. officials believe was written under duress. Conwell acknowledged that the hostages were being well treated but he added: “We ask our fellow Americans’ help. We ask the Israelis’ help. We ask everyone’s help because we’re in a situation that is dire, that needs to be rectified.”
Meanwhile, relatives of the hostages held prayer services and—in another echo of the Iranian hostage ordeal—tied yellow ribbons around trees and flagpoles across the country as symbols of those awaiting the return of friends or family. Many of the 153 passengers originally aboard the Rome-bound TWA flight out of Athens on June 14 were already free, some 41 of them on the first day of the hijacking. Another 59 passengers, including eight Greeks and five stewardesses, were released on June 15, after Greek authorities allowed Atouah Ali Reda, an accomplice arrested in Athens, to rejoin the hijackers.
Last week three more hostages were released, including popular Greek folksinger Demis Roussos and his American secretary, Pamela Smith. Another American, 48-year-old Jimmy Palmer Sr., who suffers from a heart ailment, was taken to American University Hospital in Beirut. Exactly where the other
hostages were being held remained a subject of intense speculation. Some reports indicated that they were in half a dozen locations in the Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut. Others said captives with Jewish-sounding names, who had been separately removed from the aircraft, and those connected to the U.S. military had been taken to the eastern Beka’a Valley. Amal spokesmen claimed that all the captives were well looked after. Said one: “Some of them went to the beach a few days ago.”
Deplored: But even for those safely back in the United States, the episode was clearly traumatic. The hijacking occurred “right after the stewardesses finished their spiels and the seat belt light went on,” recalled Penny Lascarides, 58, of San Francisco. “All we heard the whole time were monosyllables: ‘Sit,’ ‘Heads down’ or ‘Go.’ ” The passengers were told to keep their heads between their knees and their eyes closed for hours at a time. During the first stop in Beirut the hijackers assaulted some of the passengers, and sounds of scuffling and moans filled the aircraft. It was at that point, officials now say, that
navy diver Robert Stethem, 23, was beaten by his captors and later shot to death (page 25). Afterward, according to Kenneth Lanham of Los Altos, Calif., the hijackers “treated us with alternate solicitude and violence, almost to extremes. They went to the extent of waiting on us. Can you imagine being served an airline meal by a hijacker?”
In Washington presidential spokesman Larry Speakes said that the administration deplored the staggered release of some of the hostages. He added: “The piecemeal exploitation of the release of innocent people heightens the anguish
of victims and the anxiety of their loved ones. This is uncivilized behavior at its worst form.” But the White House expressed confidence that Berri was the key to the solution. Said Speakes: “Berri is a leader of standing in Lebanon. He has the ability to make the release possible.”
‘Dead men’: Other observers said that Berri’s control may be weaker than is generally realized. After Greek singer Roussos and two Americans were freed, hijackers aboard the aircraft maintained that no more hostages would be released until their demands were met. And few of those who watched their behavior last week doubted their determination. Appearing at gunpoint through his cockpit window, TWA Capt. John Testrake, the cool 57year-old veteran pilot who guided the plane through its three-day od-
yssey across the Mediterranean, was asked by reporters whether he thought a rescue operation should be mounted. Replied Testrake, a father of three: “I think we would all be dead men if they did, because we are surrounded by many, many guards.”
Oppression: With First Officer Philip Maresca of Salt Lake City, Utah, and flight engineer Benjamin Zimmermann of Cascade, Idaho, Testrake had been on the plane for 10 consecutive days. In the oppressive 30°C heat, engines were kept running to power the plane’s air-conditioning system. The unrelenting bore-
dom was broken only by the arrival of a small, dusty food truck and by the Shi’ite militiamen, who sometimes fired off a few rounds at passers-by.
Meanwhile, alone in the dusty, dilapidated tower, air-traffic controller Issam Mansour, 33, carried on a constant dialogue with the terrorists—and simultaneously issued instructions for incoming and departing planes. Mansour said that he was proud of the part he played in keeping the militiamen calm. “They get nervous a lot,” he told Maclean’s correspondent David North. “But when they hear my voice they get calm. After nine days, 24 hours a day, there is a kind of friendship.” Mansour, a veteran of four hijackings in Beirut, made it clear that he did not condone the action, but many other Lebanese clearly did.
On Friday afternoon three hooded terrorists made an unexpected appearance on the tarmac before about 1,000 ecstatic supporters of Hizbollah (Party of God), a pro-Iranian splinter group believed to have custody of several hostages. The men, wearing sky-blue hoods with eye and mouth slits, were driven to the crowd on a motorized aircraft boarding ramp. They were joined by three Moslem religious leaders and a fourth man, wearing combat fatigues, who has been seen frequently in the plane’s cockpit. As one man held the loudspeaker, another delivered an impassioned 15-minute harangue, punctuating his address
with the slogans “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The crowd repeated the chants and then, in an act eerily reminiscent of Iran in 1980, burned an American flag. The demonstrators carried portraits of the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and banners proclaiming: “We are seeking martyrdom. Welcome America.” Exploited: The worldwide attention focused on the hijackers renewed debate about the role of the media. Pentagon officials criticized dispatches for disclosing that U.S. commandos were on their way to the region (page 25). “For the price of a 25-cent newspaper or a 19-inch television,” said Pentagon spokesman Michael Burch, “a group of hijackers has a very elaborate intelligence network.” Other observers said that the media had allowed themselves to be exploited by
the hijackers, harming Western interests.
Dismantled: But the media were not the only focus of criticism last week. Four days after the hijacking the state department said that U.S. travellers face a higher than average threat from terrorism at the Athens airport, where the hijacking began. Indeed, in May the U.S. magazine Frequent Flyer cited Athens as the most dangerous airport in the world, ahead of Beirut. The publication added that poor security allowed “Middle East terrorists to operate there rather freely.” And in February a team
of U.S. security experts reported that security measures at the Athens terminal were inadequate. Their recommendations were never acted upon.
Athens has also been a major concern of the International Air Transport Association. Twice this year IATA appealed to Greek authorities to tighten security. Athens not only ignored the advice but
when several individual carriers—including TWA—set up their own secondary security checks, the Greek government demanded that they be dismantled. Indeed, Greek authorities reacted angrily to last week’s charges. “All the recommended internationally established security measures are being applied,” said Evangelos Kouloumbis, minister of communications.
Violated: As well, Athens insisted that the hijackers had smuggled weapons on board the TWA flight not by wrapping them in glass fibre insulation material to avoid X-ray detection or by placing them inside orange peels and a large fish, as some reports claimed. “A gun in fibre glass can easily be spotted as it goes through the machine,” said security police chief Stelios Tzanakis. “We think that they actually had the weapons put on the plane in Cairo, where the flight originated.”
During his first week in office in 1981, as the hostages from Iran returned home, Reagan said that when the rules of international behavior were violated, U.S. policy would be one of swift and effective retribution: “We hear it said that we live in an era of limits to our powers. Well, let it also be understood, there are limits to our patience.” But last week Reagan, like Carter before him, made the safety of the hostages the first priority. Said Speakes: “The first and uppermost idea in the minds of the American people is the safe return of the hijack victims. And that is the number 1 goal in the President’s mind.” War: Still, support for retaliation against terrorists after the hostages’ freedom has been attained was building (page 22). Indeed, Reagan’s reference to a global “war” against terrorism appeared to signal a new direction for the administration. This week Vice-President George Bush will begin a six-nation European tour to discuss the threat posed by international terrorists. Bush’s message: incidents like the Beirut hijacking, the Frankfurt bombing and the assassinations in El Salvador should be considered in the context of “war.” By that standard, retaliation would also be judged an act of war and might well involve the loss of innocent lives. During a rousing speech in Dallas on Friday, Reagan said: “We consider these murders, hijackings and abductions an attack on all Western civilization by uncivilized barbarians. Those who commit such crimes should be aware of the truth of President Theodore Roosevelt’s observation: ‘The American people are slow to burn, but once their wrath is kindled, it burns like a consuming flame.’ ”
With David North in Beirut, Ian Austen in Washington, David Bernstein in Jerusalem, Katherine Ellison in San Francisco, Amanda Touche in Chicago, Susan Spencer in Athens and Bruce Wallace in Montreal.